'Strong Island': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A requiem of probing complexity.

Ten years in the making, Yance Ford's intimate reflection on his brother's senseless death is a sorrowful account of a family isolated in grief and suppressed anger.

One of the most shocking aspects of Strong Island, Yance Ford's intensely personal inquiry into a tragedy that forever paralyzed the filmmaker's family, is the sad historical familiarity of the narrative — an unarmed African-American man is killed, and a white murderer goes unpunished, despite only the sketchiest of evidence supporting self-defense. Solemn, searching and at times even poetic in its indignation, this is a sensitively crafted contemplation of corrosive grief, even if the unanswerable questions surrounding the case keep the film somewhat emotionally muted.

The irreconcilable injustice being examined here means this is not a documentary about closure, though it likely offers far greater catharsis for the director than for the audience.

Yance Ford grew up as one of two sisters of William Ford Jr., who was killed in 1992 at age 24 by a 19-year-old white mechanic over a car-repair disagreement. The director, now a transgender man, expresses regret that he never got to open up to his idolized older brother about his sexual identity. But that thread feels like an insubstantial distraction, particularly given the absence of related discussions with surviving family members. While there's no questioning the earnest intentions behind this investigation, Yance's dominant presence on camera, often in tight facial close-ups, in many ways contributes to keeping William Jr. for too long out of focus.

The film, however, does assemble a moving portrait of a black family for whom the deeply held values of self-worth, education, gainful employment and middle-class aspiration ultimately counted for nothing to an all-white Grand Jury that ruled not to take the case to trial. The victim's parents, Barbara Dunmore and William Ford, had left the Jim Crow South in the 1960s to escape racial segregation. But after a reprieve in multicultural Brooklyn, they re-encountered marginalization in the Long Island suburbs and again in court.

No less searing than the tragedy of a murder victim becoming the principal suspect in his own killing is the veil of angry silence that fell over his grieving family after the Grand Jury's ruling came back. The director's mother, Barbara, is a powerful figure in the film, an educator who started a school on Rikers Island to help equip girls for post-prison life. Interviewed in her kitchen, she reveals still-raw feelings as she recalls her certainty on the day of her son's funeral that justice would prevail in court.

The material assembled here, though inconclusive, nonetheless makes it seem inconceivable that an unarmed shooting victim with a clean record was summarily blamed for his own death at the hands of an employee of a shady operation whose owner had his own brushes with the law.

Barbara's pain and Yance's rancor largely define the film. The Ford family patriarch remains a more remote figure, in part due to his suffering from a stroke that left him paralyzed down one side a year after his son's death. The family's inability to grieve collectively and protest the handling of the case is attributed chiefly to William Sr.'s fear of reprisals against his daughters, which seems justified, given the intimidation tactics the Fords experienced during the investigation.

The comments of the director's sister, Lauren, provide another perspective on the ways in which William Jr.'s death broke the family, and that intimate track ends up being the documentary's main strength. The film is less cohesive as a procedural reconstruction of events on the night of the killing and the friction of the weeks leading up to it, despite illuminating input from the victim's football buddy Kevin Myers, who was present at the crime scene but had an obstructed view when the single gunshot was fired.

At the start of the film, Yance records a phone conversation in which he hits a wall with the chief prosecutor on the case, who refuses to discuss it. That silence, and the fact that Grand Jury records remain permanently sealed, leaves a hole in the account that lingers even after the detective who headed the investigation offers his recollections.

That frustrating inability to assemble a complete picture clearly has eaten away at the Fords for more than two decades, perhaps making it inevitable that Strong Island remains disjointed in terms of building the family history into a fluid narrative. Even so, the film is both absorbing and thought-provoking — it's artfully shot, with framing that alternately suggests subjectivity and irrefutable truth, while the score by Icelandic cellist Hildur Gudnadottir and Scottish composer Craig Sutherland creates a palpable mood of reverberating sorrow and unease.

Toward the end, the director reads from journals kept by his brother, who was focused at the time of his death on getting his weight down to a qualifying level to train as a corrections officer. That direct insight into the murder victim — not via a mother's unquestioning love or a sister's hero worship but in his own words, oblivious of the fate that awaited him — pulls us into the tragic story with an emotional force that elsewhere often gets lost in Ford's layered investigation.

Production companies: Yanceville Films, Louverture Films, Final Cut For Real, American Documentary POV, in association with Just Films, Ford Foundation, Chicken & Egg Pictures
Director: Yance Ford
Producers: Joslyn Barnes, Yance Ford
Executive producers: Danny Glover, Susan Rockefeller, Bertha Foundation, Michel Merkt, Laura Poitras, Simon Kilmurry, Chris White, Justine Nagan
Director of photography: Alan Jacobsen
Music: Hildur Gudnadottir, Craig Sutherland
Editor: Janus Billeskov Jansen
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentaries)
Sales: Cinetic Media

107 minutes